Positive Youth Development Research

The 4-H Equation

4-H learning experiences are based on the principles and practices of positive youth development. Positive youth development views young people as vital resources with assets and potentials to be developed. The Iowa 4-H Positive Youth Development experience is outlined in the 4-H Equation.

Youth-driven 4-H experiences provide youth access to safe learning environments; challenging experiences that build skills, competencies, and resiliency to address life’s challenges and to actively contribute to society; and partnerships with caring adults to help meet youths’ basic needs of belonging, mastery, independence, and generosity. 

4-H staff and volunteers intentionally address youths’ basic needs by integrating eight essential elements within 4-H youth development experiences: caring adults, safe environments, mastery, service, self-determination, inclusiveness, futuristic, and engagement.

National 4-H Study on Positive Youth Development: Tufts Study

Fulfilling the Needs of Youth

The Circle of Courage, which has guided 4-H for 10 years, embodies Iowa 4-H priorities and follows a Native American model of youth development. The circle symbolizes a medicine wheel in several Native American cultures. The circle also symbolizes that all are connected, interconnected, and dependent on one another. If the circle stays intact, each has the courage he or she needs to care for others and make good decisions for himself or herself. However, if the circle breaks, people become discouraged, which affects how they treat others and how they make decisions.  


Youth need to know they are cared about and feel a sense of connection to others in group settings. 4-H gives youth the opportunity to feel physically and emotionally safe while actively participating in a group.

Sometimes, youth find themselves in situations where they are the out-group. They use their mental energy to monitor for threats, leaving fewer resources for higher cognitive processes. This concept is why Iowa 4-H builds the capacity of youth, volunteers, community, and staff to work in the context of diversity. We build programs that are welcoming, inclusive, and reflective of ALL YOUTH, regardless of geography (urban/rural), gender, race, culture, language, disability, national origin, sexual orientation, or socioeconomic status.

Belonging is represented in the 4-H pledge by the words "Head", "Heart", and "Health."    


Iowa 4-H strengthens the feeling of mastery by using the Experiential Learning Model. The Experiential Learning Model is the process of learning through reflection and doing, which begins with the interests and strengths that every youth possesses and are channeled into the learning process. Mastery focuses on the process of learning, not on the subject of the learning.    

Mastery is represented in the 4-H pledge by the words "Head", "Hands", and "Health."  


Youth need to know they are able to have influence through positive decision making and action. The Iowa 4-H program works toward providing youth with age-appropriate opportunities to develop ownership over their learning. By exercising independence through 4-H leadership opportunities, youth mature in self-discipline, responsibility, and learn to better understand themselves. 

Independence is represented in the pledge by the words "Head" and "Hands."  


Youth need to feel their lives have meaning and purpose. 4-H citizenship efforts empower young people to be well informed and actively engaged in their communities and the world. 4-H also gives youth opportunities to give back and to share with their community through service learning and community service. 

Generosity is represented in the 4-H pledge by the words "Hands" and "Heart."  

4 Basic Needs Document